Judging from the Press, the good people of Great Britain have been up in arms over the past month after news broke of national treasure Cheryl Cole’s axe from the US X-Factor, apparently because her Newcastle accent would be too pronounced for the American public to understand.
Many Twitter pages and celebrity gossip columns have subsequently been devoted to conspiracy theories about the real reason for the “sacking”, (a gigantic publicity stunt, a tragic failure in due diligence, that frightful orange and purple combination, etc) but if it turns out that the decision was indeed linked to Cole’s accent, could that, in principle at least, be unlawful discrimination?
There is no specific legislation preventing discrimination on the basis of accent alone. That said, an employee’s nationality is a characteristic protected from discrimination under the Equality Act, so we need to distinguish between accent on the one hand and racial background on the other (and to beware of action under the disability provisions of the Act if the issue is not accent but speech impediment). You also need to bear in mind that however impenetrable the accent at the time you dismiss, the disappointed victim will probably sound like something out of Brideshead Revisited by the time of the Tribunal hearing.
An employer may be able to justify this form of discrimination, depending on the nature of the business. There will be many questions of degree in this – how far is the “right” accent necessary, as opposed to merely desirable? Is it legitimate for the employer to seek to boost its image by an “aspirational” rather than regional intonation? How urgent or important is the information being conveyed? Where nationality is a key part of the employer’s identity, does it have a right to project that via the accents of its switchboard?
To many of these subsidiary queries and therefore to the main question of justification also, the answer is sadly “It all depends”. However, if as employer you make the necessary justificatory notes of your thinking in these respects, focussing exclusively on ease of comprehension rather than accent, an Employment Tribunal should be reluctant to look behind this. However, do keep a sense of proportion – some years ago a branch of well-known UK chain Halfords failed to justify the dismissal on “brand protection” grounds of an employee who had dyed his hair yellow (not blond, yellow) – clearly the tonsorial equivalent of a “difficult” accent – on the grounds (said the Tribunal) that it was ultimately just “a bicycle shop in Mansfield”.
The argument goes that if you are going to be a bus driver, you’ve got to be able to drive. Similarly, if your job is to entertain millions of people on national television with your cutting criticism/tearful praise of wannabe singers, then you’ve at least got to be understandable. The big question in our Cheryl’s case is therefore how on earth did the producers not spot Ms Cole’s glaringly obvious accent before signing her up? OMG, it must be a gigantic publicity stunt, a tragic failure, etc. [Repeat until convinced or bored with the whole lot of them, whichever comes first].